Cannonball Read IV: Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James
"The entertainment and seasonal diversions of country living are neither as numerous nor enticing as to make the social obligations of a great house a matter of indifference to those neighbors qualified to benefit from them; and Mr. Darcy's marriage, once the wonder of his choice had worn off, at least promised that he would be more frequently at home than formerly and encouraged the hope that this new wife would recognize her responsibilities."
If you made it through that sentence without it triggering your literary gag reflex, please read on. While I'm not a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (it's real, people and they can be a vicious lot), I am a fan of Austen and given the reputation of the author I hoped this homage/sequel would not be as boring as say, "Austenland" which I'm sure will make an entertaining movie (hello Keri Russell and Jennifer Coolidge, what! what!) but proved to be a tedious read.
Death Comes to Pemberley opens with a sort of "Previously on..." recap of Pride and Prejudice and the intervening six years. James rather gleefully recounts the events filtered through the gossip of the inhabitants of the town and surrounding areas in which they took place. It's the common opinion that Miss Elizabeth Bennett schemed from the very beginning with her friend Charlotte Lucas to snare Mr. Darcy and that his marriage to a woman of such lower social status must be the result of some rather Machiavellian tactics on the lady's part. She has however proven herself to be worthy of the advantages that being Mrs. Darcy affords and Derbyshire society is abuzz with anticipation of the annual ball held in honor of Darcy's mother, Lady Anne. It is on the eve of the ball during a dark and stormy night that a carriage races up the road andElizabeth's sisterLydia yet again brings scandal to the Bennett sisters. Of course the news also involves her ne'er-do-well husband, Mr. Wickham who is entangled in a brutal murder which took place that night in the woodlands of Pemberley.
The subsequent investigation is what concerns the rest of the novel and is unfortunately a bit predictable and dull. Given the constraints of the forensic science available and the legal system of the time, there's not very much mystery solving per se but rather confessions and exposition of past events. That is not to say that Death Comes to Pemberley is a bad read. James excels at suggesting the style of Austen's prose and offers forth, for lack of a better word, delicious descriptions of life on the cusp of British Regency. She also trots out all the familiar characters from the original novel for some logical and touching character development. Readers familiar with Austen's other works will recognize direct mention of and allusions to other literary figures such as Anne Elliot and Harriet Smith and their fortunate marriages, the Knightleys (who provide a surprising plot twist at the end of the novel) and even the infamous chicken coop thievery from that same novel gets a nod.
I'm not a huge fan of murder mysteries, so my take on what James set out to do left me wanting more but as an Austen fan, the novel provided the equivalent of Facebook stalking all your old high school acquaintances and getting a pleasurable glimpse into their continuing dramas. It's a speedy read but I found myself lingering over James's sentences and snickering at the underlying, familiar snark of the original author lurking beneath the beautifully constructed passages. Not badly done, indeed.
For more of Countfosco's reviews, check out his blog, Four Lean Hounds
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.